"I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders" - Nathan Kelly targeting redemption and €1 million, in that order
"Let me see if I'm able to deal with the pressure, if I crumble or not."
Nathan Kelly grew up in Finglas with a mixed martial arts role model not far from his door-step.
"When Neil Seery was doing well," he tells Petesy Carroll, "swear to God, I used to idolise the fella... Working a full-time job and fighting in the UFC - I used to see him as a super-hero."
Ahead of his first time as a Professional Fight League headliner - at PFL Europe 4 in Dublin's 3Arena - he is hoping to do Seery, Finglas and the entire nation proud. He did just that, securing a submission win in the first round, in front of a rapturous home crowd.
Next up for Kelly is the Bellator Champions Series: Belfast. The event, at the SSE Arena on March 22, will be headlined by a vacant light heavyweight world title fight between Belfast's Karl Moore and Corey Anderson. Kelly will take on Vikas Singh Ruhil (12-7) in a featherweight bout as he looks to extend his winning streak to 10.
Back in December, dubbed 'The biggest night in European MMA', Kelly (9-2-0) put his eight-fight win streak on the line against Dimitry Solimeis of France. Kelly headlined a 13-fight card that featured fellow Irishmen, Dylan Tuke and John Mitchell, as well as his namesake, 19-year-old Nate 'The Great' Kelly.
PFL works as a championship, of sorts. Fighters go into a bracket in their chosen weight division and, if they win all three fights (including the final) they win €100,000 and advance into PFL Global. That means taking on the best fighters from the USA. You win each fight in your bracket, you get the global title and, this time, €1 million.
Although Nathan Kelly was involved in a non-title fight at PFL 4, he hoped a big win would propel him into the featherweight bracket in 2024. The ultimate PFL aim is to take on the best in the USA, and on the planet.
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Nathan Kelly on overcoming doubt, and aiming big
Ahead of Nathan Kelly's big PFL 4 debut, back in December, JOE sent Petesy Carroll along to Finglas to chat with the man himself. The 26-year-old declared he is not going to crumble under any of the understandable pressure surrounding a headline fight at the 3Arena.
Next year will mark a decade in the MMA career of Kelly. He went 9-3-0 in the amateurs before turning professional, in 2017. Hopes were high, personally and from those that follow the Irish fight scene closely, but the Finglas native had a TKO loss on debut, followed by a split decision defeat in his second pro outing.
Starting off a professional career 0-2 might be enough to force some fighters out of the game. Kelly admits he did slide off track for a while before getting his act together and going after his dream with a renewed vigour.
"I felt embarrassed," he confesses. "I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders. I just felt I was useless, at that point.
"Then, someone who had dreams all their life of being this MMA star, world champion, achieve great things. To then not have any ambitions at all. To be working in a supermarket, in a job that I didn't really want to work in, I felt embarrassed and ashamed.
"Instead of me rectifying the problem, and going back to MMA, I'd be feeling sorry for myself. I was going out with me mates. Once you start doing that, and going out more, you lose sight of yourself and your goals. You start going out and partying, you know. Messing with chemicals and all that jazz. You're just going to end up f**king up the sync in your brain, regardless."
While Kelly did go through that huge dip, he did not fall away from the sport completely. Looking around at what he saw in his neighbourhood, which he feels has been hit badly by 'an epidemic of drugs', he resolved to get back in the cage.
His first pro win arrived in 2018 but the Covid pandemic put plans for regular bouts on hold until 2021. Since then, he has made up for lost time, and that 0-2 start. Seven more wins followed in just two years, including victory at Bellator 275. PFL came calling, next, and he has yet to look back.
"When I was at my lowest point," he says, "I really made the decision, to myself, that if I was going to do this, I had to do it the right way. I started reading books about psychology, to try understand why I was feeling certain ways. I read books about change and habits, and understanding how the force of habit can propel you in the right direction."
Watch that full interview with Nathan Kelly:
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